Angus King's National Perspective
Former governor Angus King, who recently announced his candidacy for the Senate, took a six-month road trip across the United States to begin what he thought would be his retirement from politics. He came away with a new perspective on Maine and the country. He shares his realizations below.
One of my favorite images in all of literature is from Douglas Adams’ classic The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The image is of the most sinister and diabolical torture machine ever devised — the Total Perspective Vortex. Resembling nothing more scary than an old-fashioned phone booth (have you noticed that these familiar objects of our youth have all but disappeared?), once inside, the occupant is confronted in blazing clarity with his or her true significance in the vastness of the universe.
The concept of perspective, in its very essence, involves where you are standing when you look at something and how your vantage point affects what you see and experience. With the occasional exceptions of governors’ conferences and trade missions to other countries, my perspective while in office was entirely focused upon Maine as the center of the universe.
Our coast was more beautiful, our people harder working and more virtuous, our trees taller, and our children all above average, to borrow the line from Garrison Keillor. But most importantly, from my point of view, our challenges were bigger than in other states — our taxes were higher, our regulations more onerous, our power more expensive, our rural areas were in greater decline, and only our children were leaving.
At least that’s what I thought until I saw thirty-three other states from the inside. What I found were shuttered and empty stores on the main streets of fishing villages in Oregon (not unlike the Down East coast of Maine); rural towns in South Dakota that had lost their high school to regional consolidation (just like some of our formerly thriving lumber towns in northern Maine); headlines lamenting the flight of young people to glittering cities nearby, whether Boise, Chicago, Minneapolis, or (in our case) Boston. And, there was universal aggravation over the depredations of the local politicians, whatever their party or political philosophy.
This struck me particularly in Washington State, which I found to be much like Maine. In Maine, one of our most persistent problems — dating back at least a hundred years — is what we call the Two Maines: the more prosperous and economically diverse southern part of the state, centered on Portland and its proximity to Boston, and the northern and eastern parts, whose economies have always been based on natural resources — farming, fishing, and forestry — all of which seem to be in a perpetual state of gradual decline. Generations of leaders — governors, legislators, mayors, local citizens — have worked on this, trying everything from special tax incentives, infrastructure improvements, and educational centers to regional industrial parks and development authorities. In fact, I spent the better part of my second term trying to slow, if not reverse, this seemingly inexorable trend.
And, to my surprise, so it was in Washington, only tilted 90 degrees. The western part of the state was where the action was — around Seattle and Tacoma — but the agricultural eastern counties were struggling — and the two regions were in constant competition for state resources and attention. Georgia, New Mexico, Oregon, Louisiana, even California, and virtually every other state we visited was coping with a similar problem in one way or another.
This didn’t make Maine’s situation any better or easier to bear (there’s no sight more poignant to me than a rusted goal post at the end of an abandoned high school football field), but it helped me to understand that it wasn’t only our problem — and that there were economic, social, and demographic forces at work that were bigger than one state or region.
Perspective won’t change your situation, but it can deepen your understanding — and can often suggest solutions. And changing your vantage point — such as by getting out on the road — is what gaining perspective is all about.
Excerpted from "Governor's Travels: How I Left Politics, Learned to Back Up a Bus, and Found America" by Angus King. Available for purchase at the Down East Bookstore